Generally, our brains will tend toward avoiding loss, lessening risk and averting harm. For the most part, that’s good for survival and helps keep us safe. But sometimes these choices aren’t the best ones for us. That’s when we have to go against what our brain wants us to do.
Knowing what those situations are can help you not say “Why on earth did I agree to do that?”
The Brain’s Rulebook
David DiSalvo says it’s like our brain has a rule book. There are rules that have always been in the book and there are rules that are being added to the book. You always have the book with you and use it often. But there are a couple of problems. Many of the rules in the book are written as if they are absolute and as if they apply to all situations, but in truth the rules aren’t black and white and they don’t fit every situation.
The Rule of Certainty
The more you question the rules the more uncertainty you face. Uncertainty is uncomfortable and the brain feels threatened. For people who are emotionally sensitive that threat is likely to be more intense and more uncomfortable than for others. Thus there is a strong pull just to go with the rules so you don’t feel so awful. But the result might be very unpleasant.
The downside of the need for certainty is that people tend to believe that they are right whether or not they really are. You can see that happen in eye witness accounts of crimes and in being so sure you left your keys in one place when they actually are in a different location.
People decide that their friends were talking badly about them, hated their outfit, and didn’t really want to include them in a get together, but just did so out of obligation. Sometimes they believe these ideas based on no facts at all. Being uncertain is so awfully uncomfortable that people turn guesses and fear into truths they believe.
The more uncertain the situation, the worse the discomfort is. So your brain goes for “feeling” certain, even when that isn’t possible. Your fear that your spouse is having an affair becomes a certainty in your mind, though you have no evidence. Then you argue with your friends and family, make a scene, or otherwise cause yourself suffering because you were “certain.”
You likely promise yourself you’ve learned your lesson and will never again make such assumptions, but you are likely to do just that because of the brain’s rule against uncertainty. Remembering that the brain has this rule may be helpful. Ask yourself what the facts are, not what you are interpreting from the information you have.
The Rule of Gratification Now Over Pain in the Future
Let’s say that you’re a writer and you’re currently working on several large projects with deadlines that are difficult to meet. You’re overworked and there’s no reason to think it will change for a long time.Then an editor for magazine calls you and offers you a contract for a lengthy article that will require lots of research and time and must be completed quickly. Doing the article will be a plus for your career and the contract doesn’t start for a few months and that’s when they’ll give you the topic. So you accept. Sound familiar?
In six months, when you start this project, you’re completely overwhelmed. Why did you agree to do this?
Maybe your immediate gratification is something different. Maybe you want to be thought of as a person who works hard, who is helpful to others, or you want to be seen as nice. Maybe you want people to like you. Whatever the immediate gratification is, it is more powerful than the pain that comes in the long term.
Our brains like immediate rewards. When the wish to have an immediate reward is combined with the challenge of thinking into the future, the result is that the future threat is discounted. That’s why you agree to help a friend move next month even when you know he is never ready on time. You’ll have to help him box the dishes at the last minute. But at the moment, saying yes is easier and your brain minimizes the stress and discomfort that will happen in the future.
It happens in families too. Your persnickety uncle asks you to go on a trip with him and it’s months away. You say yes, but when the time comes you’re desperate to get out of going. You don’t like to travel with others and your uncle can be high maintenance.
In the moment when the request is made, you likely want to please the other person. The immediate reward is gratifying their request, escaping their disappointment or avoiding their disapproval. When the time comes to actually fulfill the request, then you think differently. Why did you ever agree? What were you thinking?
Next time you have a request to do something in the future, consider asking yourself if you would want to do it today. If not, chances are you won’t want to do it in six weeks either.
The intensity bias means that people are poor forecasters of their emotional reactions. They’re also poor predictors at how morally they will act in a given situation. They can judge others, believing they know with complete certainty how they would react, but when they are in the situation they may behave completely differently than they thought they would. In the short term they are unplugged from how they will actually feel in the long term.
Most people believe that they will most certainly go on a diet tomorrow. They believe that in the future they will make better choices about saving money. In the future they’ll spend more time with their families, stick to a diet, and manage their emotions. We all seem to be completely confident about our abilities to achieve our goals, but in the future. Not now. This becomes procrastination, but people don’t see it that way.
Knowing that just because time passes, you are no more likely to crave less sugar, have more time, or be more social can help you make better choices today. And maybe knowing about the brain’s rulebook can help you not judge yourself when you’re stuck participating in something you can’t believe you agreed to do.
DiSalvo, David. What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. New York: Prometheus Books, 2011.
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Last reviewed: 17 Mar 2012